Director Spotlight: Roman Polanski
by Barry Wurst
February 2, 2007
Without question the first director to take on the title of The Master of Suspense after the Master himself was Roman Polanski. This man, with his flamboyantly directed and utterly unpredictable filmography, continues to surprise with the unusual subject matter he chooses and the interesting approaches he takes. Only Polanski's career includes Shakespeare, Dickens, a big budget pirate movie without Johnny Depp and an offbeat supernatural thriller with Johnny Depp!
February 2 - Roman Polanski
Polanski first caught the eye of American critics with his early film Knife in the Water and Repulsion (starring Catherine Deneuve). The former has a strong cult following and was released on a Criterion Special Edition DVD, while the latter, still one of the most disturbing psychological dramas ever made, has influenced M. Night Shyamalan, among others, and was the first of Polanski's so-called (not by him) Urban Dweller Trilogy. The most famous (though not the scariest) scene in Repulsion is the one where hands pop out of the walls to grab Deneuve, and the theme of madness emerging while living in an apartment / crammed living space would develop over the course of his next two films.
Based on Ira Levin's bestselling novel, Rosemary's Baby has lost none of its power to shock and has an ensemble of wonderful actors giving top flight performances. Mia Farrow (with the close-crop haircut she wore while married to Frank Sinatra) is riveting as the title character, but the work by Ruth Gordon (who won an Academy Award for this) and Sidney Blackmer as Rosemary's kindly neighbors has never left me nightmares. This low key but deeply disturbing thriller is near-perfect.
Polanski's following films included a graphic adaptation of Macbeth and the classic detective noir, Chinatown. It was during the latter film that Polanski's personal problems began to overshadow his career, but I wish only to discuss his substantial work as a director and will leave it to you to fill in the autobiographical details. Chinatown has so many elements to recommend it - Robert Towne's word-perfect screenplay, the now-classic performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston, Jerry Goldsmith's score, the shocking plot twists and the jolting final scene. For the sake of completion, I also recommend the sequel, The Two Jakes, also written by Towne and starring and directed by Nicholson - it's a very different film but an underrated and worthy continuation all the same.
The final of Polanski's Urban Dweller Trilogy, The Tenant, is a personal favorite of mine. I hated it the first time I saw it and felt let down by its cruel ending. However now it may be my favorite Polanski film. Starring Polanski himself as a meek little man who rents an apartment and finds himself going utterly nuts, just like the person who owned the place before him. Is it all in his mind, or are the people who live next to him driving him to madness? Both darkly comic and genuinely sick, The Tenant baffled audiences in 1976 but critics are just now starting to slowly warm up to it.
His next batch of films are a mixed bunch. His adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess is visually splendid but overrated and unremarkable. It was showered with Oscar nominations - for some reason. Seven years later he came back from a brief retirement with Pirates, a lavish period romp starring Walter Matthau as the lead swashbuckler. It was an embarrassing, costly flop. Two years later he got a shot at redemption by going back to what he does best - thrillers about paranoia, trust and the vaguely macabre. Frantic, starring Harrison Ford, was a critically acclaimed 1988 film that didn't do well at the box office. I suspect this was due to the big letdown of an ending that hurt an otherwise top-notch, thoughtful and surprising work. Few turned out for Bitter Moon, Polanski's 1992 offering that many, myself included, would not only call Polanski's worst film, but complete crap. There are few who would defend the film, a would-be erotic, intentionally comic, all-around dreadful film starring his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, who shows more nudity than actual acting talent.
Surprisingly, Polanski's films would start to get better and better, beginning in 1994 with Death and the Maiden, a smart, thrilling adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's blockbuster Broadway play. It deals with a one-time rape victim who turns the tables on her captor years later, except she (and the audience) aren't sure if she has the right man. On stage it starred Glenn Close, Gene Hackman and Richard Dreyfuss, was directed by Mike Nichols, and was one of the biggest events on Broadway during its run. The film stars Sigourney Weaver (in a performance that is, without question, her best), Ben Kingsley, and Scott Wilson, and is a textbook example of how to "open up" a play into a film. Made with a touch of class, emphasis on mood, and featuring a milestone acting job by Weaver, it's one of Polanski's best (and sadly most forgotten) films.
Five years later, The Ninth Gate was released, another pseudo-horror film dealing with the devil, this time starring Johnny Depp before his mega-stardom and giving a typically canny performance. The film underwhelmed American audiences and wasn't exactly a smash worldwide, but renewed interest in Depp's pre-Captain Jack roles has earned the film a following. Personally, I love the film - until the last couple of scenes, when it completely falls apart. From the cool opening titles, to the music, the pace, the cinematography and Depp's droll character, it looks like Polanski were fashioning a classic. The overly sensational and incoherent ending trump an otherwise outstanding film.
Following the enormous success of Schindler's List and the worldwide interest in the Holocaust finding a much-needed renewal, it seemed the last thing anyone wanted was another film dealing with this painful subject matter. Polanski's The Pianist, a film that referenced his own boyhood experiences during the Holocaust, would mark his biggest return to the eyes of American filmgoers. Not only was the film a box office hit all over the globe, it won Adrien Brody a Best Actor Oscar and gave Polanski his first Best Director Academy Award. The film is utterly compelling, strangely beautiful at times, sad, tender and a celebration of the human spirit. It marked his biggest comeback and reignited worldwide interest in him as a filmmaker.
His next and most recent film took everyone by surprise - Oliver Twist, another adaptation of Dicken's oft-filmed novel. While not one of the great films made from the book and not one of Polanski's best by a long shot, its still a faithful, meticulously produced, melancholy and effective film. A first ever effort at making a film for children, the film may be too harsh for the very young and didn't find its audience initially but, like a lot of other Polanski films, its time will come.
Recent news states that Polanski will be back directing again, this time a film called Pompeii, a dramatic thriller set against the backdrop of Mt. Vesuvius just before and during its eruption. The expected budget is upwards is $130 million.